NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Xfinity Breakdown: Kaulig Executes Plan; Justin Haley Wins & AJ Allmendinger Takes Points Lead

When the NASCAR Xfinity Series resumed the Wawa 250 at Daytona International Speedway Saturday afternoon (Aug. 28), following a postponement for rain on Friday night, Kaulig Racing remained the class of the field.

AJ Allmendinger led 15 of the 19 laps completed on Friday night and 15 on Saturday for a race-high 30 laps led. Teammates Justin Haley and Jeb Burton were often found behind him, a three-car train superglued together up front. Burton led once for eight laps and won stage two while Haley led twice for a total of five laps, including the most important one.

Allmendinger led the field across the finish line to start the 100th and final lap. With teammates Burton and Haley on the outside being side drafted by Christopher Bell and Harrison Burton, Allmendinger shot out to a three-car length lead. The Kaulig trio had stuck together and, when separated, found their way back to each other all race long. It appeared like it was ready to all work out.

As the field entered Daytona’s backstretch, Allmendinger went low to block the low line’s momentum, led by Bell. At the same time, Burton had a run, which Allmendinger successfully moved up the track to block. Bell’s momentum stalled due to the field being three-wide behind him, allowing Haley to approach the leaders with a head of steam. Burton pushed Allmendinger clear of Bell just enough to dive below. When Haley saw this move, he went to the high side of Allmendinger, creating a three-wide scenario where Kaulig led all three lanes.

Allmendinger successfully side drafted Burton through turns 3 and 4, allowing the three-wide battle to remain. The field closed up on the bumpers of Burton, Allmendinger and Haley but had nowhere to go. As the field approached the finish line, Haley received a push at the right time from Daniel Hemric to extend the nose of his Chevrolet across the line first.

The margin of victory over teammate Allmendinger was 0.023 seconds. Haley scored his fourth career victory, all on superspeedways.

Kaulig crossed the line three-wide, but JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier spoiled the 1-2-3 finish for owner Matt Kaulig. Allgaier finished third, followed by Burton in fourth and Hemric in fifth. Bell in the No. 54 for Joe Gibbs Racing was sixth, Noah Gragson seventh, Myatt Snider eighth, Harrison Burton ninth and Riley Herbst 10th.

The Good

Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hemric and Burton clinched a spot in the playoffs after fifth- and ninth-place finishes, respectively. Hemric has struggled this summer, but not all due to his own making. He crashed at Atlanta Motor Speedway on a restart while leading and was an innocent bystander in a wreck last weekend at Michigan International Speedway.

While results may indicate Hemric has lost his early-season stride, luck has primarily intervened. A clinched playoff berth with three races to go in the regular season may be a boost that may finally propel him into victory lane.

Burton has put together a string of five straight top-10 finishes after running outside the top 20 in four of six races between Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in June and Atlanta in July. By this point last season, Burton had two victories and would earn two more.

It has been a typical sophomore slump season for the No. 20 JGR driver, but the speed has been there. Burton has suffered from poor luck and the inability to have a complete race come together to equal victory. Like Hemric, a clinched playoff berth could add a shot of confidence into Burton’s race craft.

The Bad

Daytona was not kind to several drivers and their playoff aspirations. When the race started Friday night, Brandon Jones was leading the inside line with vigor. But debris landed on his grill opening in the first few laps, leading to water visibly showering out of this No. 19 Toyota by lap 7. By the time Jones landed on pit road by lap 9, the small water spray had turned into a geyser.

Jones’ grill was cleared, but his team did not recycle water back into his engine. During the competition caution on lap 15, Jones was awarded the free pass. Back on the lead lap, he pitted again, but the damage was done. It wasn’t long after his team went to work on his car that it was being pushed to the garage; his race was over. Jones entered the race 87 points above the cutline, and when the race concluded on Saturday, Jones left 81 points above.

Despite finishing last, It wasn’t a disastrous race for him, but it could have been better. Had Jones pitted sooner, it’s likely he would have scored more than a single point, giving him a larger lead on the 13th-place driver, Michael Annett.

Annett returned to the track for the first time since Watkins Glen International. But the excitement of his comeback was short-lived, collected in a wreck while running inside the top 10 with five laps to go in stage one. Annett spun to the left after Snider hit his right side, putting the No. 1 Chevrolet in harm’s way. He didn’t have too much damage, looking to escape until Sam Mayer slid into his left front. The JRM group repaired Annett’s Chevrolet, only for his left front tire to shred on the restart, the side into which Mayer collided.

Following repairs and a lucky dog, Annett would return to the lead lap but finished 30th, far off the leaders’ pace. Before Saturday’s Wawa 250, Annett was only 41 points below the playoff cutline. A victory would not be required to make the playoffs with four races to go. Now, after his struggles at Daytona, 68 points separate Annett from 12th-place Herbst, inching his situation closer to win-or-bust.

Austin Cindric has five wins and therefore a guaranteed spot in the playoffs. But after retiring his No. 22 Team Penske Ford due to damage suffered in the lap 26 crash, Cindric lost the regular-season points lead. At stake is 15 bonus playoff points, compared to 10 playoff points for second place. Allmendinger scored 53 points after finishing second in stage one, stage two and the race. Cindric scored only one point for finishing 39th.

Following his victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Cindric found himself with a comfortable 82-point lead. After finishing 37th at Michigan International Speedway last weekend, he held a 35-point advantage over Allmendinger. Now, Cindric leaves Daytona trailing Allmendinger by just 17, a whopping 99-point swing in just two races.

The Ugly

On Saturday, Brandon Brown finished ninth in stage one at Daytona and was primed to score more stage points in the second stage. He led three times for nine laps, all occurring in stage two. Add in Annett’s wreck and Brown was in position to make up points on at least one bubble driver.

But the underdog’s poor luck struck again when he slowed on the backstretch with less than five laps to go in stage two, coasting to pit road. Brown thought he was out of fuel, but his team tweeted that it was a “fuel cell issue.” Brown went four laps down from there and would only get one back by the finish. With no incidents eliminating several cars in the third and final stage, Brown only climbed to 34th in the running order.

Saturday was Brown’s fourth finish of 31st or worse in the last six races. He fell to 15th in points, now 111 points behind Herbst for the final postseason spot. In nine races, Brown has lost 87 points to the playoff cutline and now, his best chance to steal a win as a small team is over. Three races remain in the regular season, but a lot has go Brown’s way in order to point his way in, let alone earn a first career victory.

Underdog Performance of the Race

Richmond, Va.’s Jason White made his third start of the season. Before this year, White hadn’t made a start in a national division of NASCAR since 2014. At Daytona in February, White finished 10th. Then, at Talladega Superspeedway, he did not finish due to a suspension failure.

In Saturday’s race at Daytona, White was at it again up front. Though hesitation among other competitors to work with him presented a challenge, White managed to hold on to a top-10 running position for several laps. Following the shuffling on the final lap of the race, White crossed the finish line in 15th.

Double-Duty Interlopers

Two NASCAR Cup Series regulars, Bell and Chase Briscoe, were in the Wawa 250 Saturday. Bell finished sixth after leading 23 laps, posting his fourth top-six finish in five NXS Daytona starts. Briscoe, meanwhile, didn’t have the day he anticipated. While helping Ford teammate Herbst lead a few laps, acting as a buffer to help win stage two, Briscoe never really contended himself. The pair were eventually split up and the Cup rookie finished a disappointing 19th.

Quotable

“It’s for sure pretty cool to win here at Daytona for my third-ish, fourth time.” – Justin Haley, referring to the 2018 Xfinity summer race at Daytona, in which he crossed the finish line first but was disqualified for passing below the yellow line

“[I’m] proud of my ‘son,’ Justin Haley. He might be one of the best we’ve seen on superspeedways.” – AJ Allmendinger

Final Word

The Xfinity Series has two exciting points battles to watch over the next three races. It might as well be titled the pre-playoffs.

First up, there is a tight battle for the final three spots in the postseason. Jones sits 81 points above the cutoff line, Jeremy Clements is 72 above, then Herbst is 68. Each will need to maximize points over the next three races because there is light at the end of the tunnel for Annett, Ryan Sieg and Brandon Brown.

Meanwhile, Allmendinger’s 99-point comeback over Cindric to take the regular-season points lead will be an excellent battle to watch. Momentum appears to be with Allmendinger, although Cindric has plenty of speed in Penske’s camp.

Finally, Kaulig is clearly the team to beat at superspeedways. It takes winning as a team and losing as a team to a whole new level as all three cars work their way toward the front together. Their performance and strategy is demonstrating how important it is to have teammates at Daytona and Talladega, keeping yourself in position to win all race long.

JR Motorsports could rarely get more than two cars linked up, by comparison. Behind them, it looked like more to chance that Joe Gibbs Racing ever linked multiple cars together. Kaulig should be proud of how it’s been able to beat back those multi-car giants. It’s now won six of the last eight superspeedway races and continues to impress in 2021.

Up Next

The next time the NASCAR Xfinity Series arrives at the track, the calendar will have changed to September. Three more races remain in the regular season, starting with Darlington Raceway on Saturday, Sept. 4. Coverage of the Sports Clips Haircuts VFW Help a Hero 200 begins at 3:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network and MRN. Then, it’s on to two short tracks, Richmond Raceway (Sept. 11) and Bristol Motor Speedway (Sept. 17).

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